John Grisham’s longtime agent, Jay Garon, proudly describes his megaselling author as ”a precedent-breaker and a world-shaker.” But Grisham’s unparalleled profitability-or at least the glittering face it has presented to aspiring, avaricious lawyer-novelists-may in fact have jeopardized the very form he helped popularize. ”It’s not a good genre any longer,” says powerbroker agent Esther Newberg of ICM. ”An old-fashioned legal thriller is not what it once was, because too many people started to write them.”
Scott Turow’s 1987 book Presumed Innocent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) opened the floodgates to novels written by and about lawyers for a mass audience. Then, galvanized by Grisham’s success, publishers began signing up all the attorney-scribblers they could find. And the often-maligned barristers were only too eager to cash in on the craze. ”Every lawyer who has ever tried a case-every lawyer who’s ever written a will!-thinks he or she has a story (off which) they’re going to make a million dollars,” says novelist Paul Levine (False Dawn). ”It’s gotten to the point of almost being ridiculous,” says Turow’s publisher, FSG president Roger Straus. ”I mean, how many Madonnas can dance on the head of a pin?”
The problem of saturation has been compounded by the fact that ”most lawyers can’t write,” as Newberg puts it. ”The result,” says Levine, ”is that there are some really awful, absolutely wooden, convoluted examples of horrible prose out there.”
Excluding powerhouses like Grisham and Turow, most observers now sense a dwindling audience for your basic grab-it-at-the-airport legal thriller. The genre ”has reached its peak,” says Putnam editor-in-chief Neil Nyren. ”In the next couple of years or so, there will be a shakeout.”
If anything, the decline reflects less the implosion of a genre than the realization that the standard set by Grisham is almost impossible to meet. ”It’s not the genre itself that will die,” says Nyren, ”because there are just too many dramatic things you can do with a legal thriller. (But) the next superstar creation will come in a different area.” And the chase will begin again.